Washington, D.C. – While last week's announcement that the United States was withdrawing from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action—commonly referred to as the Iran nuclear deal—made global headlines, it is important to understand that the withdrawal is one part of a larger strategy by Israel to use the United States as a form of military backing as they intensify their conflict with Iran.
To more clearly understand the situation, it is important to remember that Iran sent major military assistance to assist their Syrian allies in defeating a regime change operation carried out largely by jihadi groups and supported by western powers. For all intents and purposes, the Assad government has defeated the 7-year-old insurgency and with it brought Iranian forces closer to Israel’s border.
A report from the Chicago Tribune explains:
Israel has increasingly warned that it sees Iranian influence in Syria as a threat, pointing to Iran's military presence inside the country as well as that of Iranian-backed militiamen. Israeli officials have said that 80,000 Shiite fighters in Syria are under Iranian control, including forces of Lebanon's Hezbollah and Iraqi and Afghan fighters.
Iranian officials and their allies have spoken of securing a corridor from Iran to Lebanon, through Syria and Iraq. Israel fears that will allow Iran to more easily transfer weapons to Hezbollah, Lebanon's powerful Shiite guerrilla force, and reinforce the militant group's influence over the region. During the civil war, Israel is believed to have carried out hundreds of strikes in Syria, mainly hitting weapons shipments.
Evidencing that Israel would act on its warnings, on April 9 seven members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, who were reportedly establishing an airbase, complete with anti-aircraft batteries, were killed in an Israeli strike on the T-4 Syrian Air Force base near Homs.
The US withdrawal from the Iran deal looks to be part of a potentially larger strategy by Israel, meant to persuade the Trump administration to challenge an immediate conventional threat to Israel; and confront any potential long-term nuclear threat posed by Iran.
The New Yorker reported that during Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s surprise presentation at the Israeli Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv on April 30, he attempted to demonize Iran by claiming that Iran had failed to “come clean” about its past nuclear program, and that Iran “intensified its efforts to hide its secret nuclear files” after signing the J.C.P.O.A. Netanyahu claimed that he possessed documents that reveal that Iran had operated a secret nuclear-weapons program from 1999 to 2003, the so-called Project Amad.
“Iran lied, big time,” he said, claiming that the Iranian government hid its nuclear files—cataloging its nuclear knowledge—due to an intent “to use them at a later date.”
Ironically, Trump statement on Tuesday virtually mirrored Netanyahu’s claims.
“At the heart of the Iran deal was a giant fiction: that a murderous regime desired only a peaceful nuclear energy program,” Trump said.
According to a report from The New Yorker:
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Indeed, Netanyahu’s big reveal was something that the signatories to the J.C.P.O.A. took for granted—that’s why it was negotiated. Netanyahu was showing that Iran could not be trusted, but the deal, as Susan Rice wrote, in the Times, “was never about trust.” It was designed to allow the International Atomic Energy Agency to monitor the very sites that Netanyahu’s show-and-tell focused on; the I.A.E.A. has certified Iranian compliance as recently as March.
Israeli analysts, including Amos Yadlin, the head of the Institute of National Security Studies, said that Netanyahu had not produced anything like proof that Iran was in violation of its commitments. “There is no definitive smoking gun that Iran lied since 2015,” Yadlin told Channel 13.
A rough consensus has emerged among leading security experts that the missile program and other matters, such as Iran’s support for a Houthi insurgency in Yemen, might well be confronted with new sanctions, which could have been imposed with the J.C.P.O.A. in place.
Therein lies the problem, as the US withdrawal from the deal creates a dynamic whereby Iran has less incentive to allow for international monitoring. Unilateral sanctions put in place by the US will effectively dissuade Western corporations from investment in Iran, and potentially cause Iran to restart its nuclear program as a deterrent to western regime change operations. In turn, this will take the situation from a diplomatic solution to a posture of military brinkmanship.
Now, add to the mix new US national security advisor John Bolton, who has previously advocated for forced regime change in Iran, and you have a perfect storm for another US-sponsored regime change operation to take place.
This dynamic is exactly what Israel is counting on.
With the stark reality of potential escalation in Lebanon and Syria, and Russia determined to keep the Assad government intact—with the assistance from Iranian forces—Israel is positioning itself to face this threat with the backing of the US. It’s important to remember that the Iranians support Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, who are reported to have upwards of 140,000 missiles—many with guidance systems—capable of striking anywhere in Israel.
The danger is that Trump’s withdrawal, and support, may embolden Israel to see military pre-emption as the primary option. With a virtual green light from the US, Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, openly backing the hard line on Iran, and the Iranian currency in virtual free fall—having lost 50 percent of its value against the dollar in the past 12 months—Netanyahu may see this as a perfect opportunity to expand Israel’s unofficial air war.
Israel is likely planning on a limited conventional air war, without a ground invasion, as a means of intimidating Hezbollah and Syria, keeping Russia content by allowing Assad to stay in power, and forcing Iran to rethink and withdraw its strategic positioning in Syria.
While it’s clear that that Israeli airpower could decimate Lebanese and Hezbollah infrastructure in a matter of days, Iran understands that military asymmetry that allows Israel to assume it can decisively win a military conflict, also makes the Israeli economy much more vulnerable to a protracted war.
“If the conflict escalates, it is hard to see how it ends,” Shaul Arieli, a former brigade commander in Gaza who has written widely on security strategy, told the New Yorker. “Given the investigations against him, Netanyahu will not have the moral authority to lead the I.D.F. into a long, bloody conflict. You don’t distrust a leader on most things and then trust him on this.”
There is a clear and present danger of reciprocal escalation due to questions over whether or not Netanyahu will be able to contain a volatile situation if he knows that he lacks the political or strategic will to undertake a long war of attrition.